In South, push for lotteries confronts 'Bible belt' values

With votes pending in two Southern states, the clergy vies with politicians seeking to raise money for schools

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

On the Sunday before Alabama's most recent general election, the Rev. Joe Godfrey preached about the evils of state lotteries.

The pastor at Taylor Road Baptist Church was one of many clergymen who spoke that day about how lotteries turn the state into "the equivalent of a bookie, ... a predator seeking gain from those it is supposed to protect."

The congregations nodded in agreement. Then two days later, Alabama's pro-lottery gubernatorial candidate, Democrat Don Siegelman, steamrolled into office with 58 percent of the vote.

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The hunger for new state revenues is colliding again with Southern "Bible belt" values, as several states in the region approach a vote on allowing lotteries. Alabamians will decide this fall, followed later by votes in South Carolina and, possibly, Tennessee. Early indications are that Bible-belt residents will set aside their churches' disdain for gambling to try to raise money for schools.

If new lotteries are approved, the votes will mark a dramatic shift in the region, which has held out against state-sanctioned gambling more than other parts of the nation. Of 13 states without lotteries, five are in the South - Alabama, both Carolinas, Tennessee, and Mississippi.

Dominating the debate is the experience of Georgia, which dedicates revenues from its new lottery to a college-scholarship fund (for which every high school senior in the state is eligible).

Still, efforts to install lotteries in the South usually come with a fight, often led by Christian leaders. They argue that lotteries are an improper way to raise state revenues - and they cite Scripture, among other sources, to make their case.

To many religious leaders and family-values groups, the growth of state lotteries is nothing less than a sign of the nation's moral decline.

"I think it's turning away from God," says Tom Blackerby, Alabama director for the American Family Association. "We're on a downhill slide.... Gambling is just part of that."

For years, groups like the family association and the Christian Coalition of Alabama, along with antilottery lawmakers, kept lottery legislation from moving forward in the Alabama State House.

But the success of the neighboring Georgia Lottery and its related HOPE college scholarship program has helped soften opposition, even among many churchgoers. Under Georgia's system, any student who gets a B average in high school can go to a state university tuition-free.

Governor Siegelman says the lottery has become more popular in the South because of a growing realization that education is the key to long-term economic growth. But while Southerners focus on education, they remain resistant to new taxes, Siegelman adds. Hence the popularity of paying for education programs with a voluntary lottery.

The governor says he doesn't expect to persuade many who say the lottery is immoral. "I fully respect their beliefs and would not try to sway them," he says. But "when Alabamians start to weigh the educational value of the lottery, I think they will vote for it."

The Georgia experience counts for a lot throughout the South. But conservative Christian organizations are trying to explain that the Georgia Lottery "stands as an anomaly" compared with many other lotteries, where money hasn't always gone to fund what was promised, says the Rev. L. Wayne Bryan, executive minister with the Christian Action Council.

He and others say the lottery and other forms of gambling sell false hope, luring many people with lower incomes who can't afford to lose. "We don't feel the lottery is the proper way to raise money for state government," says the Rev. Charles Johnson with the United Methodist Conference of South Carolina. "People shouldn't stake their future on a game of chance."

But members of the lottery industry say it's wrong to lump lotteries in with other forms of gambling. Lotteries make up just $36 billion of the more than $600 billion waged annually across the country, says David Gale of the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries.

Most people play the lottery simply as a form of entertainment, Mr. Gale says, not because they expect to take home big bucks. "The average person knows the odds of winning the jackpot are extraordinary."

In fact, not all religious groups actively oppose lotteries. In Birmingham, Ala., the Catholic archdiocese has taken no position on the issue. The state's small Jewish community also hasn't opposed the lottery. "We're probably neutral on the lottery," says Al Manzella, executive director of Catholic Social Services in Birmingham. But if the lottery produces some serious social problems, the church's position could change, he adds.

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